Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

When Trouble Comes Knocking

Inevitably, there comes point in every chess player’s career, be they beginner or professional, when they find themselves in trouble on the chessboard. Beginners find themselves in continual trouble as they learn the game but that trouble eventually becomes less frequent as they improve. I’ve had students remark that they get into trouble because they’re still learning the nuances of the game. I remind them that even the world’s top players can fall victim to problems during their games. It’s how you handle those problems that counts. The more playing experience you have, the more likely you are to avoid trouble before it happens and if you do find yourself in trouble, the more likely you are to deal with it successfully.

As you improve, you make better moves based on sound planning and avoid the problems that come with making bad moves based on poor planning. However, you can still fall victim to a troublesome position in which you are at a disadvantage that could cost you the game. Maybe you miscalculated, missing a potential opposition move that sends your position into turmoil. The beginner will panic while becoming overwhelmed by the dark cloud of defeat, often giving up before trying to fight back. Always try to find a solution when faced with a problem.

I have my beginning students finish their games no matter how bad the position. With more advanced students, I teach the fine art of resignation, but only if the position is hopeless. Beginners tend to get into trouble very early on due to a lack of opening and middle game skills. Most beginner’s games conclude before the endgame starts.

It’s easy enough to get my students to apply the opening principles, having a pawn control a central square, the development of minor pieces towards the center and early castling. However, when it comes to exchanging material, things go south quickly! To avoid being on the losing end of an exchange, we assign dollar figures to the pieces rather than a relative point value. My students have a fondness for money and when they’re thinking about exchanges of material in financial terms then tend to make better decisions. You wouldn’t trade a $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight or Bishop or worse yet, a $1.00 pawn. It’s simple Chessonomics! Don’t trade down unless doing so wins the game!

Let’s say that you, our intrepid beginner, make a bad trade in the opening. Rather than panic, examine the position. Look at the opposition pawns and pieces, then look at yours. Make sure your opponent’s pawns and pieces are not in a position to do further damage, such as capturing any hanging or unprotected material belonging to you. Then look at the activity of your minor pieces. Are they well placed, aimed towards the board’s center. Look to see if your opponent’s damaging capture on their last move left them vulnerable to a potential tactic such as a fork, pin or skewer. The point here is that you should look to see if that last opposition move left any weaknesses. Many times, a beginner will grab a valuable piece of material from their opponent only to have that opponent come back with an even deadlier attack. Always look before panicking. When you panic your brain tends to focus on the emotional aspects of the problem at hand rather than the practical issues, such as how to get out of trouble.

With beginners, the loss of the Queen (which is why you don’t bring her out early) extinguishes any thoughts of winning the game. However, this isn’t always the case! A beginner who snatches his or her opponent’s Queen from the board often becomes a bit relaxed in their strategic thinking. After all, they just took your most powerful weapon away from you. This can give you a needed opportunity to strike back but you have to carefully assess the situation. The key again, is to not panic and look for ways to equalize. Look to see if you can reduce the dollar amount you just lost! If your opponent uses a Rook ($5.00) to capture your Queen ($9.00) and you can capture that Rook with a pawn or piece (assuming you won’t lose that pawn or piece as well), capture the Rook. Then the loss becomes less. Instead of losing an entire $9.00, you reduce your loss to $4.00. I’d rather lose $4.00 than $9.00.

When beginners attack they often do so in a haphazard manner, leaving weaknesses in their position. In the case above, look at the position and see if there are any weak spots in the opposition’s defenses. If you can’t find any and you’re down in material, build up your own defenses around your King. Position pawns and pieces in a way that makes it extremely difficult for your opponent to launch an attack. Beginners will often give up a great deal of material trying to break through to your King which could restore the balance from a dollar and cents standpoint.

Play for the draw if you opponent has the material advantage, especially when playing beginners. All too often, I see one student with a lone King and the other student with an overwhelming number of pieces left on the board. Beginners don’t understand the dangers of stalemate when they have too much material. They carefully arrange their major and minor pieces around the enemy King and when it’s the Kings turn to move, he has no place to go and the game ends in stalemate. Again, rather than panic when faced with an overwhelming force, try to keep your King away from the edges of the board and force a stalemate. Drawing a game is better than losing it. Of course, you should always play to win but sometimes a draw is the best you can do.

Endgame play is the hardest phase for the beginner because they simply don’t play enough of them early on in their chess careers. If you’re the player with a lone King against an opposition King and pawn, rather than submitting to defeat, play for a possible draw. Of course, if you’re playing an experienced opponent, that opponent will know how to promote the pawn properly. If your opponent moves the pawn first, so their King is behind the pawn as it works its way towards the promotion square, you can end up with a stalemate. Most beginners don’t know about King opposition and keeping his majesty in front of the pawn attempting to promote.

The idea of this article is to force you to look at troubled positions logically before throwing in the towel and giving up. When beginners play beginners, seemingly devastating attacks are too often flawed. By examining a position closely and logically, you sometimes find that things aren’t as dark as they seem. You will learn a lot more about this great game if you at least attempt to work through your positional troubles. By looking at a bad position and trying to determine a good course of action, you’ll become a much better player, even if you lose. Have faith in yourself and don’t simply give up without a fight! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Pawn and Minor Piece Workouts

Beginners tend to employ major pieces for early attacks when they first start learning to play chess. We’ve all brought our Queen out early when we first learned the game only to watch her be captured by our opponent. The same holds true for the Rook. Beginners tend to think about using their minor pieces in limited terms, especially the Knight because of its strange way of moving. Pawns are expendable to the beginner because he or she has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued material in their arsenal (or so the beginner thinks). This often leads to a lack of game skill regarding pawns and minor pieces.

I’ve been trying a number of training exercises to get my students up and running when it comes to employing pawns and minor pieces in their games. Of course, there’s the old standby, the pawn game, used to introduce beginners to pawn movement. However, it only introduces the beginner to pawns interacting with pawns. In the pawn game, both players have only pawns that are lined up on their starting ranks. White moves first. The goal of the game is to get one pawn (or more) to the other side of the board to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and then capture the opposition’s pawns. The first player to capture all of the opposition’s pawns wins. This is a great way to learn about pawn structure and pawn coordination.

I’ve altered this game a bit to help students learn about the mighty pawn and minor pieces at the same time. It’s very simple. The student playing white will have the pawns and the student playing black will start with a single Knight on the a8 or h8 square (it doesn’t matter which corner square the Knight starts on). The goal for white is to get one pawn to its promotion square, promote it into a Queen and then capture the opposing Knight. The goal for black is to stop the pawns, namely by attacking the base of any pawn chain white creates as well as capturing any lone or unsupported pawns.

While it’s a tough challenge for the player with the lone Knight, it can be done, especially if the pawns are not well structured. If white doesn’t progress across the board with his or her pawns working together, black can pick off any lone pawns with ease. The student who has the black Knight will learn a great deal about moving the Knight, a piece often difficult for beginners to master. When a student says “I don’t think this is fair since my opponent has eight pawns and I only have a single minor piece,” I remind them that those eight pawns are going to have to work extremely closely with one another to avoid capture. I also mention that the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over (and behind) any pawn or piece on the board. This means you can’t block an attack by a Knight. Once the game concludes, the students switch sides and start a new game. After that game, they switch sides again and we add a second Knight to the black side. Now the third game starts with all the white pawns again on their starting rank (the second rank) and a black Knight on a8 and h8. Things become a lot tougher for white facing two Knights. At the conclusion of game three, the players switch sides and a fourth game is played.

I use the same idea with the Bishop. White starts the game with eight pawns on the second rank and black starts with a Bishop on either a8 or h8. The goal is the same, with white aiming for a pawn promotion and capture of the enemy Bishop. Because the Bishop is a long distance attacker with a greater board range than the Knight, white has to be extremely careful with their pawn structure. Lone pawns without supporting pawns will be picked off in no time. However, the single Bishop can only attack pawns on the same color square it’s on. After game one is concluded, the players switch sides and play again.

As with the first example employing the Knight, we add a second black Bishop to a corner square for game three. This means you have a black Bishop on a8 and h8 for game three. Now the player with the pawns has to think very carefully about pawn structure. Remember, with one Bishop on the board, your pawns will always be safe if they’re on a square of the opposite color of the square the opposing Bishop is on. With two Bishops, no square is safe. Only careful coordination and pawn structure will allow a pawn to be promoted. Game four finds our players switching sides one last time.

I use this training idea in my classes as well as a warm up exercise for my students at tournaments. What they get from this is twofold. First, they learn a lot about pawn structure, which is critical to good play, especially when they start to get into real endgame positions. Secondly, they learn to master those minor pieces they tend to ignore early on in their careers. When playing with two minor pieces students start to develop coordination between pieces, something sorely lacking when they first learn the game. So there’s a simple exercise you can use to develop some basic chess skills that’s fun but not easy. Getting good at something is never really easy (except in movies and works of fiction) but the reward for mastering it is priceless. Try this and you’ll see. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Crying Game

I often go to a number of local junior chess tournaments to closely examine the tournament’s inner workings, players, etc. I do this so, when I eventually take my students there to play in a tournament, I know what we’re getting into. I had a chance to visit a tournament that was geared toward very young players which was exactly what I was looking for. The venue looked great, the equipment was good, parking was plentiful and there were plenty of restaurants nearby. However, there was one major problem, an overwhelming number of crying children. Looking at this scene of bleak despair, you’d think that every child in the tournament hall had just been told that Santa Claus had been viciously murdered on Christmas Eve. It got me thinking about my own students and how much crying they did. Thankfully, my students, even the really young ones, aren’t criers. There’s a good reason for that. I teach my students not to cry when they loose a game (or tournament).

I read an article about how we now have a generation of cry babies coming up in the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crying. I had a good cry upon hearing about the death of David Bowie. Crying can be a healthy thing. However, too much of anything, healthy or not, will have negative consequences. My heart goes out to parents who, upon seeing their children in tears, feel terrible. After all, as parents we do our best to shelter our children from life’s often harsh realities. A little sheltering is a good thing but, like anything else, too much of it and you do your child more harm than good. This business of too much crying, according to the article, stems from “Special Little Snowflake Syndrome.” This problem occurs because many parents tell their kids that they’re special little snowflakes, unique and unlike any other child. Well, this seems reasonable enough on the surface. However, many parents, in a effort to shield their children from the emotional pain that comes when a child discovers they’re not good at something, overplay this idea. Yes, every child has the potential to do great things but they’ll have to fail at many things though their journey of life in order to find the one thing they can do well. It’s called growing up and experiencing life!

Now we add into the mix, the new idea that rather than have a first, second, third and fourth place trophy only, we give trophies to every child at a sports competition or chess tournament so no child feels left out and, more importantly, no child cries. At our monthly Academic Chess tournaments we offer four trophies per section so you either place or you don’t. Obviously, this idea of rewarding every child for showing up and playing chess didn’t work at the above mentioned tournament. The drought in California could have been solved had I collected all those tears (they would have filled a petrol truck). I’m not trying to be an old SOB here but, there’s something to be said about healthy competition. After all, it has driven civilizations to great advancements. If every child playing in one of these “everyone’s a winner” chess tournaments knows they’re going to get a trophy, doesn’t that dampen their competitiveness? I think it does to a certain extent. While I can’t change the generation of crying children on a whole, I have been able to control it among the hundreds of students I teach and coach.

The first thing I tell students is that there will always be another game of chess for them to play, so if they just lost a game, there will be another game they’ll have a chance to win. Eventually, they will win a game or two or three. No losing streak lasts forever. I also tell them that they can have a good cry over their loss or regroup. By regroup, I mean playing through the game, figuring out where they went wrong and then correcting the problem so it doesn’t occur in future games. Crying won’t improve your game. Learning from your mistake will! The best revenge is simply learning from your mistakes and moving on.

I make a point of spending greater time with students who are having problems winning games, working through those games with them and creating a battle plan. The battle plan consists of working through the problematic part of the game and coming up with a set of better moves that could have been made. Kids love the term battle plan because it means preparing for future action on the chessboard, a call to action (I use a lot of old Kung Fu movie examples because kids love martial arts). You have to provide hope to your students but telling them they’re special little snowflakes does little in the way of practicality. Practical hope is helping them improve their skills on the chessboard so they’ll win that next game. You also, as a teacher, have to lead by example.

Since losses are what discourage students of the game we love so much, you have to show them your own losses on the chessboard. Young students often assume that because you’re the chess teacher or coach, that you’ve never lost a game in your life. I make it a point of showing my worst chess losses at least once a month. If students see that you’ve painfully lost a game and come back from that loss, they’re more likely to take losing a bit better. Always give them practical hope!. I’ll often ask my advanced students to take one of my losses and show me where I went wrong. You’d be surprised at the really good ideas they come up with!

A loss on the chessboard is really an opportunity to learn, to get better. Therefore, a lost game should be looked at in a positive light. That is the wisdom I impart to my young students. When you lose a game, don’t get sad, get mad. Mad enough to sit down and determine where things went wrong and then correct the problem. I reinforce this idea over and over again until I’ve completely convinced my young students that every single loss is a golden opportunity to get better at chess. Of course, you can’t overdo this idea, otherwise you’d have a gaggle of students simply not trying to win. Again, too much of anything can have negative results.

Then there are those moments where a young student plays the best chess game ever and still loses. After fifty or so moves and hours on the board only to lose, I might feel like crying. However, as I tell them, crying only adds to the winners feeling of superiority. The best way to handle a loss to shake you opponent’s hand firmly, look them straight in the eye and say “great game” with a smile on your face. This works especially well when faced with an obnoxious opponent who wallows in victory. Always be gracious.

Again, I don’t fault parents for their attempts to shield their children from emotional pain but when you go overboard, you’re doing more harm than good. It’s a hard world out there and it requires having thick emotional skin at times. I grew up in a hard world which prepared me for many of the challenges I would face later on. Given the choice between a cloistered or sheltered life or a life steeped in often harsh reality, knowing what I know now, I’d take harsh reality.

I firmly believe that the idea of giving everyone a trophy just for participating, while it might make everyone happy, removes healthy competitiveness from the equation. This leads to children striving less towards achievement. Healthy competition is a good thing and children are a lot more resilient than we think. They’re young so their minds jump from one thing to the next and this holds true for emotional situations as well. A child will lose a chess tournament and move on to thinking about something else. Of course, the parents tend to be more crushed than their children who just lost but that’s part of parenting as well.

So parents, I highly suggest teaching your children to deal with life’s losses early on. I do believe each and every child is special. Every student I teach is brilliant in my book. However, I know realistically, they’re not all, if any, going to become Grandmasters. However, they’ll find their way to that one thing in life that they enjoy and do well at. In the end that’s what counts. Let them find their way through life. Be there when they need you. Let them cry but remember, too much of anything is counter productive. Teach them that crying is appropriate at certain times but it is not the answer to everything. Here’s a game in which I suspect one player might have had a good cry. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson



We all have personal goals, be it earning a college degree or doing a better job at something in ours lives. We try to achieve these goals with the best of intentions. However, many of us fall short. It’s not that we don’t want to achieve something. We have the initial drive that propels us towards improvement in life. What we often lack is the primary element allowing us to achieve our goals, discipline.

The ideas discussed here can be applied to our lives on and off of the chessboard. How many of you readers have used the term “procrastinate” to describe something you either haven’t done or put off until the last minute? Procrastination is the one of the primary road blocks to achieving goals. Also creating a road block to success is follow through.

Of course, life can be extremely difficult at times and our focus must shift from achieving our goals to simply surviving. While you cannot avoid these forks in the road of life, you can learn to use the time in between life catastrophes wisely.

For most of us, life will move along smoothly and just when we get comfortable, a crisis hits. We have to make changes in our lives and start again. In my own life, I seem to have a major crisis every ten to fifteen years of so. Knowing that I have a major life changing event on a semi schedule means I have to use the time in between these events prudently. The lesson here is that when things are going good in your life, take that time and try to achieve something. However, even thinking this way, you might not achieve your goals because of the previously mentioned road blocks. Lesson one: Be aware of goal road blocks.

When I was younger, I had a bad habit of starting things and not finishing them. With the exception of music, I didn’t stick with the goals I had set, most of them educational. I would get off to a great start and somewhere down the line I would start slacking off and eventually lose interest. I lost interest due to one big reason. I’d overdo things. What I mean is this: My first college major was Astronomy. At the time, I was a somewhat successful local musician. I started dating a girl who went to college. Being a high school drop out (thrown out actually), I determined that I needed to be in college to impress this young lady. That is not a sound reason for seeking an education! I went to the local community college, got their course catalog and started thumbing through it. I was lazy back then and got as far as astronomy in the course descriptions. I read a line from one of the class summaries that said “astrophysicists can trace the origin of the universe to 1/10,000 of a second after the big bang.” I was hooked. I took the class and the other seven astronomy classes they offered (including introductory astrophysics which required knowledge of Calculus – I failed high school Algebra). I worked around the clock, often doing homework at my band’s sound checks at clubs. The famous American concert promoter, Bill Graham, once walked into our dressing room at a big show we were playing and saw me with a calculator and astrophysics text book. He was surprised that I was doing such “heavy reading” and told me that Brian May from Queen was an astrophysicist. Did that propel me towards my degree goal? No, I gave up a few months later. I was studying literally around the clock and became burnt out. Lesson number two: Pace yourself when it comes to achieving goals. Sometimes we have a short finite amount of time in which to achieve our goals, in which case we must burn the midnight oil. However, it is best to take the slow and steady approach, taking your time and methodically building up your knowledge base or foundation. For most of my life, I’ve jumped headlong into things, only knowing only two modes for studying: on and off. If your on, you have to be gong a hundred miles and hour. If your off your off. Find a good, steady cruising speed in which to approach your goals and you won’t burn out.

It was only later in life that I learned how to find that slow an steady pace that would allow me to achieve my goals. However, I still go over the edge when it comes to learning. When earning my Mandarin language degree and certificates, I started slow and steady but ended up jumping head first into the fires of obsessive learning. I immersed myself into my studies and nearly burned out which would have meant not meeting my goal. While immersion is a excellent way to learn a language, it can lead to burn out. Again, pace yourself. What saved me was having the right set of circumstances in place when I started my studies, otherwise things might have ended differently. Of course, I never would completed my studies had I not dealt with procrastination and discipline. Lesson two: Set a reasonable pace!

Procrastination is an issue everyone has to deal with. Show me someone who claims to never have procrastinated and I’ll show you a lair. It’s alright. We have all procrastinated at one point in our lives. Let’s say you have to go to the dentist and you’re not fond of dentists in general. You put your visit off until one side of your face looks like a Chipmunk’s cheek due to an abscess. So much for procrastinating. Humans tend to put off what they don’t like dealing with. They also put off certain aspects of what they want to deal with, such as studying. I know more than a few chess players who purchase a new chess book that’s going to help them improve their playing skills. The book then sits on a shelve collecting dust or gets partially read. We all want to improve our game play but it becomes less appealing when we suddenly realize we’re going to have to put a lot of effort into it! We make up excuses as to why we can’t crack that book open. We procrastinate.

The sure fire way to avoid procrastination is by tackling the biggest road block to achieving goals, discipline. Discipline is something my adopted father lives by. He is a master of this idea. He has had extremely serious health issues during the last few years that include severe pain that would leave most people in tears. Yet every single day, he gets up and practices his martial arts. Of course he is a certified martial arts master, but the point here is that he has discipline.

Discipline is not something you’re born with but something you slowly develop over time. The younger you are when you start to develop discipline, the easier things are going to be throughout life. If you’re a old middle aged goat such as myself, fear not, because you too can develop discipline and that discipline will be a life changer for you.

You develop discipline slowly, one step at a time. You’ll have set backs, but if you keep at it (developing discipline) you’ll find its rewards sooner than you think. The first way to develop this crucial life skill is to choose your initial goals carefully. You can’t think to yourself “even though I’ve never painted before, I’m going to be able to perfectly reproduce the works of Rembrandt within six months.” That’s not going to happen.

When I decided to learn Mandarin, I wanted to learn a few phrases I could use with the Chinese parents and grandparents of many of my students. Nothing more, nothing less. This is an achievable goal. I picked up a book, had some trouble with it and found an online course that allowed me to work at my own pace. I set aside time each day and studied. I stuck with it. Giving up too soon is an occupational hazard of learning any seemingly complex subject. I passed that course and took another one and ended up with an accelerated language degree. The point is this: I set a simple goal with no hard deadline or expectations. Lesson three: Set realistic goals.

Even if your goal is completely realistic, you have to have to achieve it which means following it through. This is really where discipline comes into play. Discipline is a slippery fish in that once you start to develop it, it becomes stronger and stronger. However, the slippery part is actually starting to develop discipline and maintaining it.

This is why you set a realistic goal. Discipline and realistic goals work hand in hand. Developing discipline starts the minute you’ve chosen your goal. To develop and maintain discipline you have to commit to a schedule. If you’re studying anything, you have to commit an allotment of time each day to achieve your goals. If you’re new to a subject, don’t commit a massive amount of time each day to your studies. Otherwise you’ll become burnt out. Concentration is key to studying and the novice doesn’t have the mental stamina to concentrate for long periods of time. When I first started studying Mandarin, I put about an hour a day into my studies, broken down into two thirty minute sessions. Only after I had built a solid language foundation did I extend the time I studied each day.

Disciple is like a garden in that you have to tend it daily or the vegetation will die. You cannot make excuses for not studying. Of course, you’ll have emergencies now and again, but stick to it. Otherwise you’ll skip a day here and there and before you know it, weeks will have passed in between study sessions. Discipline only occurs when you stop making excuses and step up to the task at hand. Discipline is like the muscles in your body. If you don’t maintain them, you’ll lose your strength. Lesson four: Discipline is only developed through daily exercise (sitting down and doing the work that achieves your goal). Here’s a game, by a couple of well disciplined players to enjoy until next week. This one’s for you, David Bowie!

Hugh Patterson


The Chess Bully

I was at a friend’s party and a guy walked up and said “so Hugh, you teach chess professionally.” I said I did and he immediately challenged me to a game. He seemed a bit hostile, in a subtle way, and I suspected he was challenging me for bragging rights. After all, if he won, he could walk around the party exclaiming that he beat the so called professional chess teacher. I really hate being put into these positions and tend to tell people my chosen profession is that of an over the hill guitar player to avoid this situation. He offers me the white pieces and we sit down at the board and start the game. Of course, a few people wander over to watch, making me wish I’d stayed at home. I don’t know how well this guy plays so I play carefully. Within ten moves, I have an idea about this fellow’s level of play, which is slightly below average. He’s not terrible but he’s trying to launch premature attacks in an effort to win quickly. I just close the position down and push back his attacks and win game one. He wants to play again. We do and I win. He asks for a third game but I decline, to which he says “afraid I’m going to win this one?” Meet the chess bully, known by his Latin name Homoidiotic Nitwiticus. My reply to him was “you’re probably right which is why I decided to bow out now.” My thoughts, however, were quite different!

Chess bullies come in many forms. I can honestly say that 99% of my chess playing friends are fantastic people who love the game and treat it and its players with kindness and respect. However, there’s still that one percent who are chess bullies and every chess club seems to have a resident bully. It’s as if it’s an unwritten club bylaw! When I totter down to the local chess club, I’m looking for a game, not a gladiatorial match in which I have to play the role of Spartacus. Therefore, I keep my day job to myself. Yet I always seem to end up with the chess bully on the other side of the board. This explains why I play a lot of correspondence chess these days.

Of course, with advances in technology such as the internet, the chess bully has a whole new arena in which to rear his ugly head. Chess forums are littered with the ramblings of know it all chess bullies who practice the art of typing before thinking. For example: A forum posting will be created regarding the merits of Bobby Fischer’s chess skills. I don’t know about you, but Fischer’s chess abilities are far above my overall skill set. While I teach his games to my advanced students, there’s a high level of complicated play on Fischer’s part that requires a great chess mind to fully comprehend. However, the chess bully will go onto the forum and complain about Fischer’s moves during a specific game, as if they could improve upon those moves. When they offer their suggestions they reek of a computer engine. Did I mention that the average chess bully has a low chess rating?

Then there’s the opinionated chess bully who knows twenty or thirty “big important smart” words and insists on using them over and over again, often getting so far off topic that readers forget what the topic was in the first place. I’ve witnessed colleagues of mine, here at The Chess Improver, post really wonderful ideas on forums only to be attacked by idiots who play poor chess and suffer from “type before you think” syndrome. I wonder if these guys carefully read what they’re responding to. Some of these nitwits will use 10,000 words to complain about the font used by someone posting in a forum or deliver a short novel on the word “the.” What does this have to do with chess?

Of course, there are some chess bullies with decent ratings and these are the worst of the lot. With high ratings comes the blinding drug of absolute power. They use this self deluded power to snipe at everything chess related, again, typing before thinking. They are the worst of the bunch! They like to complain about chess books the rest of really enjoy and have learned a lot from.

While it’s great to post your thoughts on chess related matters, you should choose your battles carefully. I’m no Magnus Carlsen (more like his shoe and sock valet when it comes to chess skills), so you won’t see me offering alternative lines and variations in a conversation with highly titled players regarding opening theory. This may explain why none of them have given me the boot as a Facebook friend. I enjoying reading their analysis and learn from it. I have nothing concrete to add and don’t want to be the guy that stinks up the conversation.

Chess bullies are overly compulsive when writing (clogging up is actually what they do) on forums. They find some tiny little point that has nothing to do with the point originally being made and drive it into the ground. Thousands of words are put together with their poisoned keyboards and before you know it, they’ve hijacked the conversation. Which brings me to my next point, personal agendas.

I’d like to thank Jennifer, my wife, for leaning over me while I was writing this and saying “what about personal agendas? That drives me nuts.” I knew I was missing a key component of the chess bully’s personality! We all have a personal agenda in one form or another. However, with the non bullying type, it’s usually something as simple as “I want to get better at this or that.” With the chess bully, it’s all about glorifying their very existence. The chess bully is under the misguided assumption that it is we who should thank them for being allowed to breath the same air. There is nothing worse than reading a great forum topic only to have some unhinged troll come in and make it about their own cause. If you want to talk about your own cause start a separate topic. Don’t roll in and ruin someone’s effort to post something meaningful. Of course, chess bullies do create their own topics, which causes non bullies to comment in an effort to shut the bully up. This is what the chess bully wants, attention, attention and more attention. Don’t feed the chess bully. It’s just like trying to feed a wild bear. Nothing good will come of it (well, the bear might make you his or her lunch, which is good for the bear).

Is there is cure for this dreadful disease? While I might consider having them drawn and quartered, I don’t think the rest of the chess world would follow suit (except in possibly one or two cases). The cure is to ignore them. They feed on your frustration. If you ignore them, they eventually go away. The problem with any forum is that everyone has a right to speak. Here, our Constitution permits free speech so you get the good and the bad. It’s part of having a Democratic society. So the chess bully has a right to speak. Of course, you certainly don’t have to like it. However, the more you comment back about what a horse’s rear the chess bully is on your forum of choice, the more that bully is going to keep posting. Ignore them. As for the chess club bully, if no one will play him, he’ll have to find another place to get his kicks. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. By the way, it’s okay to be a bully on the chessboard, but only through the moves you make.

Hugh Patterson


Chess and Autism

I teach chess to a broad spectrum of children and have dealt with a plethora of young personalities. I’m the go to guy when it comes to troubled kids and chess in my geographic area. I’d love to tell you that I have a well researched scientific method that allows me to succeed with the troubled children I work with but I’d be lying. While I’ve done my fair share of research regarding how to work with children who have specific disorders, I suspect there’s simply something in my personality that these students connect with (as opposed to my understanding of human psychology). I’ve taught chess to thousands of children over the years and, while I’ve had a high success rate, all it takes is one student I couldn’t connect with to keep me up at night wondering where I went wrong. Enter Autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by a difficulty in interacting socially, communication problems and repetitive behaviors (there are additional characterizations but this is merely a short essay on two encounters). There are varying degrees of Autism with some people on the high functioning end of the spectrum, meaning they can lead a relatively normal life, and others falling on the low end of the spectrum, making life very difficult to manage. It’s a lifelong problem but its symptoms can be reduced and controlled with different types of therapy. I wanted to share my experience with two children with Autism. We’ll start with Student #1:

I met Student #1 during one of our summer chess training camps, one week chess boot camps for kids. His mother had indicated that he had a slight learning problem and nothing more. One of the biggest problems I face when working with challenged children is the lack of real information I get from the parents. Of course, I understand that parents don’t want to have to say out loud, because there is still a stigma attached to it, “my child has Autism.” However, things will go from bad to worse if you don’t give the person you’re leaving your child with concrete information. Roughly 50% of children with Autism have a tendency to wander off (eloping) from their caregivers which is a serious problem when that child is in a large group of children managed by a single individual. They can also (but not always) strike (hit or kick) other children, not out of maliciousness but due to the way their brains perceive their environment. Knowing a child has Autism allows the teacher or caregiver the opportunity to monitor and address the situation.

I immediately noticed a few of the signs of Autism with Student #1 and decided to spend one on one time with him. Prior to this, Student #1, within ten minutes of his mother leaving, started walking around and knocking chess pieces off the boards of games in progress. He also started to run towards the front doors of the building with the intention of leaving and kicked my associate when he intervened. He didn’t want to interact with the other students so I sat down at a chess board with him. I asked him if he’d played chess before to which he answered “yes.” I asked him to set up the board and what he did next was amazing to say the least. Rather than set the board up traditionally, he positioned it at an angle resembling a Rhombus. Some of the pawns and pieces were set up in the peaks of the Rhombus closest to each player. He then proceeded to tell me the rules of his game which were not like a typical child’s version, in which the rules get made up as the child goes along. These rules were very specific and made sense. This child had created a very sophisticated version of the game. He is an extremely smart individual!

Unfortunately, he was very disruptive and only made it through a few days at chess camp. However, this part of the story has an amazing ending. Two years pass and I see him listed as a student in my chess class. His father said he’d be attending class with him and serve as his focal point/caregiver. The first day of class arrives and the young man in question is not only the most well behaved student in the class but the most engaged. I was able to pair him up with other students and even when he lost a game, he took it better than most adults do. The youngster is now my classroom assistant (seriously, he’s my assistant). Enter Student #2.

In this same class, I had a student who I was told had some mild learning challenges. This child, I was told by other parents, had a propensity for kicking and hitting. Being slightly forewarned doesn’t help when the issues are serious. You need factual, detailed information. However, in fairness to the school and parents, a child’s medical history is private, so legally I couldn’t be given the information I needed. However, on day one of class I watched the child, saw the same symptoms exhibited by Student #1 and attempted to create a plan of action. The first thing you must do as a teacher is sit down with the child in question and see if you can interact. Communication was quite difficult in this case. The child was brand new to chess so I tried to teach him the game very slowly, starting with the pawns (just their movement). The first thing I noticed was that his thought process shut down as soon as things became too much for him to take in. He then walked away and started disrupting my other students by kicking over their chess pieces. Many of these students have been with me for a year or two and they know to be understanding when another student is having a problem (it’s an absolute rule in my classes). Therefore, they were willing to put up with the set back.

Needless to say, things escalated by the next class and Student #2 had an incident that led to his being removed from the class. Fortunately, I was able to work with the school’s director and guidance counselor to resolve the problem with little fanfare. However, it saddened me because as I said earlier, all it takes is not connecting with one student to keep my up at night thinking about what I could have done better. Time will tell regarding whether or not Student #2 will eventually return to chess.

For parents of children with Autism, I truly recommending being completely upfront with teachers and caregivers no matter what. Being forthright can be the difference between your child being able to successfully participate in a program or not. With Student #1, chess has become a lifeline and a valuable tool in helping him gain greater focus and control. This focus and control will greatly aid him as he enters the teenage years which are hard enough as it is.

If you have a child with any kind of disorder, you have to seek out help from day one. I know that no parent wants to think their child is broken in anyway. Often, this thinking leads a parent to avoid seeking help. They try to fix the problem on their own, hoping the child will grow out of it. Autism has a stigma attached to it, a stigma created by people who have no true understanding of the disease. Parents want their children to fit into society and sometimes treat Autism as if it were a dirty secret to be kept hidden. If you ask the average person to define Autism, they might say “oh that guy in the movie Rain Man.” The point is that the public is generally misinformed which creates a negative mythology regarding Autism. This, in turn, pressures parents into keeping their child’s problem to themselves, when they should be seeking professional assistance.

While school counselors are generally good at what they do, one should work directly with a health care professional who works in this field. I also recommend networking with other parents who have children in the same situation. It’s a balance of the two that seems to garner the best results.

I have spent some time studying Autism since my first encounter with Student #1 because unlike many teachers who would easily say “this is above my pay grade,” when faced with an Autistic student, I want to be the one teacher willing to learn how I can help. Of course, I can only go so far offering my assistance due to a lack of professional knowledge, but some assistance is better than no assistance, especially for parents who are overwhelmed. Know the signs of Autism if you’re a teacher and work towards helping that child out rather than dismissing them. With Student #2, I’m trying to set up some one on one time in a quiet setting to see if chess can be of any assistance. Maybe, if I can find the connection between he and I, we can reintroduce him to chess. It may work, it may not, but to not try would be far worse than trying and failing. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Trial and Error

Technology has been a great aid in learning how to play chess. It allows students in remote regions, where chess teachers are hard to find, the ability to learn the game via software programs, DVDs and online videos. It’s a win win situation, right? Well, there’s positive and negative aspects to learning chess by employing modern technology. Prior to today’s technology, chess students learned the game by reading books and applying the trial and error method of learning. You picked up a book, played through the examples provided within the text and tested your newly acquired knowledge out against human opponents. Now, chess students have access to databases and chess engines that provide the best possible moves in a given position. This is where things go wrong!

What could possibly be wrong with having a computer program that is stronger than the best Grandmasters aid you in deciding on the best response to an opposition move in the early phase of the game? Let’s say our chess student is studying opening theory and uses their computer program to build up their opening skills (not while actually playing another person of course). They employ a database to see how top players respond to specific opening moves. They also use a chess engine to see how the computer would respond. So far, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with this scenario. However, the student is learning concepts far above their skill set which means they’ll never be able to safely and successfully employ these ideas into their own games (at their current skill level). First off, the beginning student isn’t going to be playing a Grandmaster in their next game, more likely another beginner, so their opponent won’t be making the responses our beginner is expecting. This will leave them lost. Secondly, what good is a stellar move if you don’t understand the principles behind it?

The real problem for the players that learn with the electronic method is that they bypass the trial and error method of learning which actually teaches you something as opposed to simply mimicking database or chess engine moves. Trial and error is just that. You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else and repeat the process until you find something that does work! While this might seem like a waste of time to some, especially those younger players who grew up with chess engines and databases, there is something to be said about simply trying things out, experimentation! Tinkering with things has had the greatest positive impact on civilization’s advancement.

There was a time in the not so distant past when we all had to employ this method to acquire a skill. Learning what didn’t work, through trial and error, taught us a great deal and often led to great discoveries (the history of chemistry is littered with great discoveries made through trial and error methodology). When you try something, such as a non “book” move in the opening, and it fails, you have to examine why it fails which helps to reinforce the correct move. With each failure, your knowledge base increases and you learn more.

Human beings tend to try things their way first. We as a species are stubborn, prone to think that we’re going figure things out on our own. However, as technology makes it easier to streamline our ability to learn something, we tend to use that technology to guide us in our efforts. Let’s say you want to fix a leaky faucet. You can no go online and find a video that walks you through changing the worn rubber washer that caused the leak. You don’t have to give a second thought as to how the water system in your home works. Sounds again, like a win win situation. You save money and time.

Let’s say you’re a budding artist and you want to learn how to paint a landscape. Here’s where things bet a bit dodgy. You can go online and find step by step videos that will have your creating great landscapes with a minimal effort. There’s only one problem. There’s no real art in your work. You’ve mimicked the work of the person presenting the video and nothing more. What would happen if you employed the trial and error method, trying to figure it out on your own? It would certainly take a lot longer to create a landscape. However, you’d not only create an original piece of art but you’d probably make some interesting artistic discoveries along the way. You might become a highly original artist! The same holds true for music (I know this from learning by trial an error, which left me with a playing style that has some originality to it – not that it’s brilliant).

How does this apply to chess? Well, younger players spend far too much time basing their play on the suggestions given by software programs than they do going into uncharted waters on their own. While this may help in tournament play, it turns chess into a dry exercise in mechanical play. Think about the games played during the romantic era of chess, when gambits and sacrifices were king! Sure, those players wouldn’t hold up against today’s super Grandmasters, but there might be less draws and more exciting games! A game of chess should be like a movie, full of action, drama and tension. Yes, there are such games to be found today but they might soon become rare due to an over-reliance on technology.

I actually encourage my students to use the trial and error method. Of course, I try to teach them the correct way to play from the start but I know, especially with children (and adult beginners), that they’re going to try things their way first. They should try things their way because eventually they’ll see that the principles I’ve shown them really work. They learn the hard way and in doing so, learn a lot during the journey.

Then there’s the nagging thought that with the astronomical number of potential positions within a single game of chess, there must be uncharted waters ripe with rich potential discoveries. There could be some awesome game changing idea floating on those uncharted waters, but no one’s going to find that great idea because their computer is calling the shots. I’m sure your copy of the latest, greatest chess playing software will tell you that there is nothing out there (otherwise your program would have found it), but I don’t fully trust machines (neither does Stephen Hawking and he’s no intellectual lightweight). Great discoveries are still the domain of human explorers. As I say to my students, “go out into the sea of potential chess positions and find something new. Be an explorer, don’t be a minion of the silicon monster.” As for you, go out and explore. The next time you have a problem on the chessboard, see if you can figure it out before asking your computer for it’s opinion. You might not completely come up with a solution on your own but you’ll learn more than enough from the process of trial and error to make up for it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. No Deep Houdini Smoodini 10.4 being used here!

Hugh Patterson


Learning From Your Journal

I was digging through some boxes this week in an effort to make some room in my office and discovered a chess journal I had written in 2000. I have always kept educational journals to chronicle my progress through various classes, projects and hobbies. I took my old chess journal out to the backyard, sat down and opened it up to see what I had written. What I found was appalling! It was my own explanations of various chess principles I had learned and what was dreadful about what I was reading was the fact that my explanations weren’t that great! The explanations sort of explained the ideas I was studying at the time but they weren’t clear and concise. Of course, as a chess teacher I shouldn’t admit this publicly but read further because there’s a lesson to be learned here.

After dragging myself through the first fifteen or so pages of that old journal, I went and got my current lecture notes and copies of chess articles I’ve written and was greatly relieved when I discovered my current work is much better. The chess journals I keep now are clear and concise. Ideas are explained in simple terms. This experience really got me thinking about the learning process and documenting it as a way to view one’s progress and understanding of the subject matter.

Too often, we pick up a chess book, read about a principle and think we truly understand the idea we’ve just encountered. What many people tend to do is simply memorize the idea without putting it into their own terms. I’m fortunate in that being a chess teacher forces me into really having to take a principle apart a number of times to understand how it works so I can explain it to others. I create analogies that my students can understand and by doing so, I completely understand the idea. Having taught chess in a large number of schools over the last five years and having to go through this process of closely examining various chess principles is why my current chess journal (and writing) outshines my past work. Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to do this much work but there are ways you can make your chess journal shine the first time around (and not have to horrify yourself reading it years later).

Rule One: You have to keep a journal. If you want to document your progress in an honest way, keep a journal. When I say “honest,” I’m not saying you’re dishonest about measuring your progress, but often it’s hard to remember just when you made that small advance or big leap in your playing and what helped you achieve that! The journal will provide you with an accurate record of your advancement. There’s nothing better than comparing old journal entries to newer ones and seeing that you’ve made good progress!

Rule Two: Before creating your own explanation of a principle, write down the author’s explanation first. This gives you a basis for the creation of your own explanation and a point of comparison for determining whether or not your thoughts on the concept make sense. You don’t have to write down the entire chapter you’re reading into your journal, just the key points.

Rule Three: Come up with multiple explanations of the idea you’re trying to master. In chess, you should always try to come up with at least three candidate moves before committing to one. Two of the moves might be good but only great moves win games. That third move idea might be the great one but you’ll never know unless you put some effort into it. The same holds true for creating your own explanations. Approach your explanation in a few different ways. Doing this will help you really understand the idea! Hastily jotting down the first thing that comes to mind and leaving it at that could leave you confused later if it’s not spot on.

Rule Four: Use analogies that you understand. You wouldn’t try to explain an opening principle in terms of a surgical procedure unless you were a surgeon. It wouldn’t make any sense. If you like football, think of a football analogy. Work with what you know when creating an explanation.

Rule Five: Don’t write a 400 page book on a single idea. Less is more! Good explanations are simple and concise. Too often, a person who has a propensity for long winded writing (I’m sure some of you are thinking of me right about now) will take a perfectly reasonable explanation and write so much about it that the explanation gets lost in a sea of words. Try writing a Haiku to explain a concept (I’m serious. Even if you can’t do it, you’ll become intimately connected to the idea in question by trying). Again, less is more!

Rule Six: Date your journal entries with not only the date but your chess rating as well. You’ll find that as your own explanations get better, your rating generally improves as well. Dating entries is important because it lets you chart your progress.

Rule Seven: Use the back pages of the journal to create an index. The main problem with chess journals is that they often are filled with non-sequential information; a bit on opening ideas, then endgames ideas, more opening ideas, etc. When you write in your chess journal, note the topic and page number in the index. Don’t worry about sequencing the index.

Rule Eight: Go back and read your journal entries on a regular basis. Often, you’ll reread an entry and discover that your explanation doesn’t make sense. This forces you to rethink it, come up with a better explanation and thus learn a bit more about the idea!

Rule Nine: Do not doodle in your chess journal. Non chess related scribbles take your focus away. If you’re a doodler, keep a note pad handy and doodle on that, not your chess journal. I had a bad habit, according to my 2000 journal, of drawing a cartoon of Richard Nixon. This might explain why my explanations were so bad back then.

Rule Ten: Hang onto your journals. Don’t throw them out! They are a history of your life and what you’ve done. Sometimes, when I feel as if I haven’t done enough in life, I can look at my journals and see that I did indeed do something!

I purposely didn’t suggest recording games and game diagrams in your journal because you’ll most likely be recording your games in a separate book or electronic device. I also didn’t suggest this because the chess journal is best when the explanations are in your own words rather than diagrams. Of course you can employ partial diagrams for certain ideas but drawing diagrams can be time consuming and take away from the thoughts flowing through your head. If you try employing some of my suggestions, you won’t end up looking back in horror as I did when looking at your early efforts. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Dear Parents

This is a open letter to all the well meaning and loving parents out there who work so hard to give their children an advantage in life by teaching them, in this case, the game of chess. I know you love your children and I appreciate your efforts to aid them in their journey through life. However, we often, in the name of love, do things that end up having more negative consequences than positive outcomes. Take teaching your child chess for example. How could teaching your children a game that helps them develop logic and reasoning skills possibly have any negative consequences? Well, in theory the idea is absolutely sound. However, in reality, where the rubber hits the road (as an old college professor was fond of saying), things can go terribly wrong.

Enter the well meaning parent. Now, I know some of you are not going to like what I have to say. So be it. I’m not a politician seeking office and would rather bruise a few egos to ensure this problem is corrected than hold your collective hands and say, “don’t worry, it’s going to be alright.” I’m here to fix a few things and in doing so help your children get the most out of chess. What do I mean by the well meaning parent?

We all want the best for our children and tend to shield them from the harshness of life with love. The last thing a parent wants to see is their own child crying. It’s heart breaking but it’s part of a child’s journey through life. Children try something, make mistakes, cry and move on (hopefully learning something in the process). Parents, rightfully so, don’t want to see their children feel any kind of pain, be it falling down on the playground or getting crushed on the chessboard. It’s the well meaning parent that bends the rules and principles of chess so their child can win (and not cry) that creates a plethora of problems for the child later in life as well as the chess teacher in the here and now. Here’s what I mean.

Our well meaning parent will decide to enroll their child in a chess class or club to give them an academic leg up. A few months before the class or club starts up, our parent teaches their child the game of chess. This sounds great so far doesn’t it? After all, my job will be so much easier if all my students know the basics before my class starts. The parent works with the child every night and those few months pass quickly. Armed with chess knowledge from mommy or daddy, my new student walks into class. I ask them if they know how to play chess and they enthusiastically answer yes! I sit down with them to play a game and they proceed to play a version of chess that has it’s own set of principles and rules. When I question them about questionable or illegal moves they respond the same way, “my father always does this, so I do that and I always win.” Here’s an example:

I had a new student who knew how the pieces moved and the very basics of the game. His father, who taught him how to play, had done a fine job so far. However, my student started the opening phase of the game without any regards to the most basic of opening principles. With each move my student made, I asked him if he knew about the proper way to start a chess game. His response was “to move pieces and win the game.” I opted to give him the chance (a one time offer) to choose alternative moves. He chose not to change the moves he made because, in his words “I always beat my dad when I play this way. Needless to say, I beat him and without mercy. A week later, the father came to class and asked me why I insisted on beating his son and “not even giving him a chance to win a few pieces!”

I carefully explained that the students I teach show no mercy on the chessboard, doing their best to win the game. I wasn’t trying to produce chess players that were mean spirited but chess players who simply played good chess. Of course, the father decided to avenge his son’s loss with me, expecting I would graciously loose to him so his son would be proud. Wrong. I’m not in the business of throwing games. I try to play to best of my abilities and expect my students to do likewise. I really hate being put in this position with parents.

Many parents, really great people who only want the best for their children, make a huge mistake in letting their children win. What happens when that child, whose parents let them win over and over again playing chess, faces another child who knows the basics and has faced losses on the board before? Tears and loathing for the game I love so much is what happens in most cases. Sheltering your child from loss can have extremely negative effects in the long run. Better to teach them how to handle losing before enrolling them in a chess class or letting them loose in the world!

The other big problem that crops up is the teaching of bad chess habits by parents. If I had a dollar for every bad chess habit I had to break in my classes, I could purchase a small castle somewhere. Again, it’s the well meaning parent with little in the way of principled chess knowledge that creates the problem. Bad habits are hard to break once they’re ingrained into a young mind. Compounding this problem is the statement “my father always does this” or “mom always beats grandma doing this.” Now it’s personal since the bad idea was hatched by a beloved family member. I really don’t want to be the guy that points out to children that their parents were wrong! I bet there’s a few parents that use a picture of me for a dartboard!

On the flip side of this problem are the parents who realize that they don’t know enough about the game to offer good instruction prior to their child’s first chess class or who know that it’s better to have their child face a loss on the chessboard with them before that child faces another child across the chessboard in class. I offer my parents the option of sitting in on my classes if they don’t play chess so they can learn along with their child, thus ensuring everyone is on the same page. I’m surprised at how many parents won’t take me up on the offer and then proceed to teach their children bad chess habits. The best life lesson I ever learned was discovering that I don’t know everything and should consult experts when need be! When it comes to the intellectual welfare of children, one should set their ego aside.

To remedy the problems discussed above, parents should take advantage of old fashioned books and new technology! You can find many great books, look up Richard James, and software programs/DVDs that properly teach chess to children. By doing so, you’ll ensure that your children are learning the right chess habits. Don’t be afraid of hurting your child’s feelings by beating them at chess. They love you and will get over it in five minutes. Play the best you can against your child because when your son or daughter sits down with a classmate, that classmate isn’t going to go easy on them. It’s much better to get a life lesson regarding losing on the chessboard than elsewhere in life. Children are a lot tougher than you think! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t make you a bad parent! In fact, in my book it makes you “parent of the year.” Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson



I’m the type of individual who would rather be good at a handful of things then master of one. I like intellectual variety in my life, probably because I enjoy a bit of chaos (but not a lot of chaos). I had a teenage student ask me how to get “good” at a number of endeavors and I had no concrete answer until I really thought about it. I’m sure some of you may be thinking “you can’t get good at at one, let alone few things, without having some sort of plan.” However, I tend to jump into things and figure out what works in achieving my goals (or what doesn’t), making a note of what does the trick. Intuition from a lifetime of learning simply kicks in. I use a variety of learning techniques depending on the subject matter. Yet, there is one common thread that ties together all my learning experiences and that is a solid foundation.

Building a solid foundation is the real key to learning something, be it chess, music or Mandarin. You simply cannot become good at something unless your knowledge of the subject at hand rests upon a solid foundation! On the first day of my first college class, the teacher stated that we would spend the first week learning how to study. I was amazed and appalled at the same time. After all, we were in college so we should already know how to study. After quizzing my classmates, it became apparent that none of us really knew the fine art of studying. It’s really quite simple. It comes down to time management and reading the texts in manner that allows you to comprehend the material (skimming through a chapter to become familiar with it, rereading it in detail and asking yourself, after each paragraph, exact what points the author was making). Also included in the professor’s instructions regarding studying were finding a quiet place to read and taking good notes.

However, he never really talked about the power of a strong foundation regarding the subject matter. This is where I’ll jump in! How good you get at something depends completely on the foundation of knowledge you build for yourself. Think about building a house. If you live in earthquake country as I do, building even the nicest house on a foundation of sand will lead to disaster when the ground starts to shake. Therefore, you build a house on a solid foundation of concrete (poured onto bedrock). The same holds true with learning. How far you get in your study of a subject depends on the foundation of information you create. Your foundation, in this case, requires a firm and complete grasp of the basics, the essentials.

We all know chess players who employ openings, for example that are beyond their grasp. They memorize an opening move order along with a few variations without having a solid grasp of the underlying principles. Then they play someone who makes a move they haven’t memorized and it’s game over! Before you venture off and play the Ruy Lopez, you need to understand the principles that guild each move. When white plays 3. Bb5, for example, you need to understand how this seemingly non-centralized move helps to control the center (the Bishop on b5 attacks the Knight on c6 who in turn is defending the pawn on e5). If you want to get good at chess you have to know the very basics of the game inside and out. It’s knowledge if the simplest concepts that allow you to learn and understand the complex ideas. There’s no room for partial knowledge if you want to win games against strong opponents. Too many times, a player will try to make a move he saw Karpov make, only to have it backfire and lead to a loss. As a beginner or improver, you can’t play like Karpov so you shouldn’t try. It’s the idea of learning to walk before trying to run! You build your foundation of knowledge as single brick at a time.

Another great example of building a solid foundation can be found in mathematics. If you wish to learn algebra and calculus, you need to have an absolute grasp of arithmetic! Many people dislike mathematics, and while they’re able to get through the basics of arithmetic with little pain, they usually have a little trouble with fractions (unless you live in a country smart enough to use the metric system which bypasses this annoying branch of mathematics). They skim through learning fractions, which weakens their mathematical foundation and then run into trouble when fractions are applied in algebra! Their thinking is this: Fractions are a small part of arithmetic as a whole, so if I do well everywhere else, I’ll be just fine! Wrong! It only takes one poorly placed brick to bring your foundation crashing down.

There’s no taking half measures when it comes to building a solid foundation. In studying Mandarin, I made a point of really working on the most basic aspects of the language, the tones. Some words in Mandarin are spelled identically but have different meanings based on how they’re pronounced. If you gloss over studying the tonal aspects of the language, you’ll never speak it correctly. You’ll proudly walk into a Chinese restaurant, place your order in Mandarin and be swiftly thrown out because you told the waiter his wife was a goat! Like memorizing a chess opening, you can memorize a huge number of words in Mandarin but if you can’t pronounce them, no one will understand what you’re saying (and you’ll never be allowed back into your favorite Chinese eatery).

So how does the beginning chess player build a solid foundation? Obviously through hard work and study. However, you have to progress slowly and not advance from one concept to another until you have a firm grasp of the material you just studied. I advocate over-kill when it comes to learning. You can’t study too much (within reason of course). Opening theory, something I talk about a great deal in my classes, is a great example of an area in which beginners tend to skim through. Patience, is the chess student and chess player’s best friend. When learning how to start a game, the opening, beginners more often than not, study the games of the masters. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you really understand the opening principles. As you play through the game of a master, ask yourself with each move made for either side, how do the opening principles apply here. Too often, a beginner will jump to the next move if her or she can’t figure out what opening principle applied to the previous move. Wrong! You have to determine the principle behind each move before moving onto the next. If you can’t figure this out, go online and do some research. There are millions of beginners out there and you can’t be the only one stumped by a particular move! By doing the research you’ll answer the question which will, in turn, strengthen your foundation. Play through the game you’re studying not once but five or six times. When you can play that particular game from memory you can move on.

The same holds true for tactical play. I use tactical training programs on my computer to improve my skills. However, I do something not everyone does. Most people will look at the screen, solve the problem and move on. Wrong! Tactics don’t appear out of thin air. They are set up. This means you need to look at moves made prior to the execution of the tactic! If the program you’re using doesn’t give you the moves made prior to the tactic in question (many don’t), find it in a database. I know this this takes extra time and you won’t be able to tell your friends that “I did 1,237 tactical puzzles today,” but you’ll learn a lot about how to set up the tactic in question. It’s all about the foundation you build!

Endgame play tends to stump the beginner because they never get to a proper endgame or if they do, they’re playing someone with endgame experience. Learn endgame principles and find someone to play endgame positions with, such as a chess playing program. Play pawn and King endgames until you’re eyes glaze over and then do it again. Slowly add more different pieces into the mix. Take it slowly, one brick at a time.

Going that extra mile, building a simple but solid foundation, will do wonders for your ability to take on more complex ideas (both on and off the chessboard). Like I said, you can’t run until you learn how to walk. Don’t worry about people around claiming to have sped through their studies because they’ll hit the brick wall fast learning soon enough. Of course, for anyone who has read my social media posts regarding my fast acceleration in learning Mandarin, it’s only happening because I build a solid foundation of the basics, which took a great deal of time and work. However, that work in fully grasping the simplest concepts is paying off. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson